Head Jams

Gary Parra and Noisy Neighbor try to catch a ride on the prog-rock revival train

Everyone knows that progressive rock died in the late '70s, right?
The only question is when the patient actually expired. Was it the moment that Johnny Rotten first leaned into a microphone and howled, "I am an antichrist"? Or was it the day that Yes buckled to the winds of change and dumped Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman in favor of those two nerds from the Buggles?

The correct answer is: neither. The fact is, prog rock (or art rock, or whatever you choose to call it) never really died. It just went underground, way underground, where it's quietly, and against all odds, sustained itself and in some cases influenced the direction of so-called alternative music. If you don't think so, try rummaging through the record collections of the members of Shudder to Think, Flaming Lips, or Primus. You might be surprised.

Sure, it's easy enough to dismiss prog rock for being self-indulgent and pretentious, or for stubbornly mixing musical forms (i.e., classical and rock 'n' roll) that just don't belong together. But in its own gussied-up way, prog rock was always as uncompromising and anti-authority as punk. In that same gussied-up way, it delivered mind-expanding head music a full generation before the first ravers ever heard of Ecstasy. For Gary Parra, a Phoenix percussionist and internationally renowned prog-rock cult hero, progressive music has always represented an alternative to the established order.

"This music showed me there were different ways to play things in four-four time," he says. "Most drummers play on the two and four beats. I play on one and three, just to make it different. It was challenging for me, because people either liked me or hated me. There were many rock bands that said, 'You can't groove. How can people dance the way you play?' So I would get canned from different bands here or there, but it was never really an issue to me. Deep down, I always felt that I wasn't meant to be in the standard rock format."

Parra earned a fanatical European underground following for his drumming work in the remarkable avant-garde, jazz-rock quintet Cartoon, which formed in Phoenix in 1978 and eventually relocated to San Francisco. Cartoon split up shortly after having all its equipment stolen in Paris in 1984, and Parra went on to form a wild improvisational trio called PFS (Past Future Simultaneous, or Pure Fucking Space, depending on the night of the week).

That band led to Parra's greatest triumph, a solo recording venture called Trap. For the Trap CD, Parra played a variety of keyboard and percussion instruments and created a symphonic wash of sound all his own.

Last year he moved back to Phoenix and hooked up with old friend Tim Forkes--regular keyboard player at Chez Nous--for a two-man instrumental behemoth called Noisy Neighbor. They've nearly finished a debut CD and are brimming with enthusiasm and ideas. Only one problem: Where does a grandiose prog-rock group find gigs in 1998? It's tough enough to haul banks of synthesizers and lavish lighting equipment into a small club, but it's even tougher convincing booking agents to make a leap of faith with such unfashionable music. Even so, Parra sees evidence that the pendulum is swinging back toward ambitious progressive rock. He cites the emergence of magazines like Expose and Progression, and the "prog fests" that are now being held annually on each coast and in such unlikely cities as Louisville, Kentucky. If rockabilly, big-band swing, disco and ska can all be reincarnated, who's to say that art rock can't do the same?

"There was this revised energy in the mid-'90s until now, so I'm back in the swing of things because of that," Parra says. "I've never really compromised; I've always been willing to work 9 to 5 in order to not compromise the music I'm playing."

An unlikely break for Noisy Neighbor came last year when Parra met booking agent Rob Birmingham (Fun Bobby Productions) through their mutual friends the Claymores. Birmingham recently booked Noisy Neighbor to play at Hollywood Alley, along with Present, a legendary progressive band from Brussels, Belgium. Although the overall shortage of gigs in Arizona has Parra planning to move to San Diego next month, he and Forkes will keep Noisy Neighbor going, and they plan to play future Hollywood Alley gigs with some of their favorite international acts.

Improvisation has always been a big part of Parra's music, and he believes that "soul music" (not the Otis Redding variety) is what comes out of the spontaneous interplay of live musicians. But even for him, Noisy Neighbor represents an unusually high degree of collaborative creation. He and Forkes get together with no prepared music, and then they jam together until they arrive at ideas they can use, eventually stitching together the best pieces.

Noisy Neighbor also represents Parra's first foray into the world of electronic drum pads, a move he was reluctant to make but which has widely expanded his sonic palette to include gong, timpani and even barnyard animal noises.

Like Trap, Noisy Neighbor is working with the French label Musea, which offers the band proper distribution in Europe, a continent that not only embraces Parra but has never abandoned its love of prog.

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